Women Behind Canadian TV: Virginia Rankin

Cr: Julie Perreault
Cr: Julie Perreault

How do the old sayings go? That life isn’t about the destination, but it’s the journey that truly matters. That mantra certainly holds true for executive producer Virginia Rankin. After beginning her career as a feature film director, life threw some twists and turns in her way. She has worked on both the network and production side of the industry before landing in her current position at Sphere Media Plus. There as an Executive Producer, she is in charge of developing new English-language projects based on successful French-language series for CBC and Rogers.

More specifically, Rankin served as executive producer on critically acclaimed Canadian dramas such as 19-2 and This Life. She has worked on shows such as Flashpoint and Hard Rock Medical. Rankin recently spoke with The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TV series. She also discussed how important it was for her that This Life worked to give more opportunities for women directors, and what she looks for when translating series from French to English.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: You’ve been a part of developing some of Canada’s most successful programs from Flashpoint to 19-2. How did you get into the field and is television production something you’ve always been interested in?

Virginia Rankin: I was always interested in being a filmmaker. I was one of those kids that made movies with my siblings when I was 14 or 15. There was a film called The Railway Children, and I remember crying when the movie was over because I wanted to live inside the movie. That was the moment for me when I wanted to become a visual storyteller. So I’ve always only ever wanted to do this one thing, but the ways I’ve gone about doing it have changed very much from the beginning.

I went to film school and wanted to be a director, and even though I was female, I don’t think it ever occurred to me that it was something I shouldn’t try to do. I feel lucky that I grew up in the 70s because it was a time of freedom, feminism and a time when girls could do anything. However, when I got out of film school I realized how hard it was going to be, but kept working at it and did short films. I worked as an art director on other people’s independent films and was in a nice little community of filmmakers in Toronto where everyone was helping each other out.

Then there comes a point when you start worrying about actually making a living. I tried to make a feature for a number of years and went to the Canadian Film Centre as a director. That could have potentially launched my career, but I met my husband and very quickly had a baby. So just when it seemed like I was going to launch my career as a filmmaker, I ended up having my daughter, and son soon after. That made it harder for me to continue on the director track, so I started teaching at Humber College.

I then heard that the Film Centre had started the Prime Time Television Writing Program. When I heard about the new program I was really interested and wanted to learn more about TV. So I got into that program in its first year, and learned an incredible amount about the writing and showrunning process. I really loved what I learned, but I also learned I was more interested in being a producer than a writer, which was another major turning point for me.

When I came out I was almost immediately offered a job at CTV as a development executive. It was completely unexpected since three months earlier I barely knew that job existed. I spent three years there learning about broadcasting which was very educational, but I really wanted to go back in production. As a broadcaster you’re distant from production and I wanted to get my hands dirty again. So I started working in development about 13 years ago and ever since then have been moving from production company to production company in different positions, but I feel very lucky to be executive producer of three different shows this year.

I’ve worked 30 years to get to this point, so it’s been a long process, where I’ve taken a lot of twists and turns, but in a way it’s a straight line and in a way it’s a winding road. I feel like I’m doing what I want to do now, even though I couldn’t have pictured it 30 years ago.

@thislifeseries / CBC
@thislifeseries / CBC

TTVJ: You said it never occurred to you to not do something because you were a woman, but in having worked at networks, production companies and in film, did you ever have to deal with opposition because of your gender? If so, how did you deal with it?

VR: When I say I didn’t think it was going to be an issue, of course I was wrong. [laughs] It just hadn’t occurred to me that that was the case. In a way what I’m doing now, on the executive track, is where women excel, and where women are allowed to excel in television. There are many, many women at broadcasters and in executive producers positions. It’s harder for women to be directors. I think it’s changed some for writers with there being so many top level female showrunners. Directing remains the hardest field for women to penetrate.

I let biology sidetrack me a little bit by deciding to have kids and focusing on that. I don’t regret it, but biology does sometimes alter your path. I could say I didn’t get to make the feature film I wanted to make because I was female, but I don’t think that’s why. I think there were many other factors and a lot of people don’t get to make the feature they dreamed of making. Was it harder? Potentially. A lot of men were making films at that time and not a lot of women, but I’m not going to say that was why.

I do think women have to be careful not to be ghettoized into the “female” parts of the industry. I am surprised how hard it is for women to become directors, even 30 years later.

TTVJ: However, on This Life’s second season, two out of the three directors you guys used were female. Was that intentional?

VR: Yes, seven out of 10 episodes were directed by women and in Season 1 we had four out of 10. We always wanted female directors, and it was nice in Season 2 that we could find two that worked with our schedules and had the right sensibilities. It could have been three, but we also have Louis Choquette who is perfect for the show. You want to make sure you have all the right people, male or female, but we were very happy to do seven out of 10. That being said, it was only two women because one directed three episodes and one directed four. We still weren’t able to give seven women the chance to direct, but two women really got to make significant contributions.

TTVJ: In looking at the Sphere Media site, four of the five producers listed are women. That statistic would go against a lot that we see about the percentages of women in behind the scenes positions. What makes Sphere different?

VR: Well it’s interesting because it’s owned by a man, Jocelyn Deschênes, and I don’t think he has any men working for him. [laughs] He obviously likes and respects women and has given great opportunities to women. Why that is? I don’t really know, but all of his top level producers are women. It’s a great thing and he’s always been completely supportive of putting the creatives first. So whether that’s a man or a woman, as long as the creative is coming first that’s what drives Jocelyn and Sphere Media.

Bell Media
Bell Media

TTVJ: As part of your job at Sphere, you look at launching English counterparts of successful French-language series such as 19-2 and This Life. What makes a series a good candidate for you?

VR: It has to have elements that will translate from one culture to another. Obviously, 19-2 is a cop show which we know are successful all around the world. So in a way 19-2 was an easy one, but what makes it stand out is that it’s character driven. It isn’t murder of the week, but about the regular lives of cops. It was different from what people were already seeing on TV.

In a different way with This Life, we felt that there was nothing like it on TV. If you go out and pitch a show about a mom dying of cancer everyone is going to say ‘no, I don’t think so.’ But since we were able to show them how beautifully executed it was in French, they were able to get it and realize it wasn’t desperately sad and hard to watch. It gave people the courage to think that they could do it.

There’s a lot of melodrama in French-Canadian television and those don’t translate as well. But sometimes you take a great idea and can make something completely different. Both 19-2 and This Life were fairly faithful in their first seasons, but then they became their own shows.

TTVJ: What do you think can be done to further to bridge the gender gap that exists behind the scenes in television?

VR: I wish we could just stop talking about it and hire the right person for the job. There are so many competent women out there that it shouldn’t even be a question. It’s frustrating it’s still a question. We see what the CBC is doing by saying that 50 per cent of episodes are directed by women, though we don’t need a quota per say, but the intention is great. So let’s just do it. I do think it’s happening and we’ve shown you can do it no problem. We just need to stop considering it as an issue and just do it.

TTVJ: What advice do you have for other young women looking to break into television production or something you wish you had known?

VR: It’s good to be as ignorant as I was and assume there was no issue. If you believe in yourself then just learn as much as you can, taking every opportunity and be open to different paths. There’s different ways to end up where you want to be. The flexibility of women is an asset and just have the confidence to do it.

 

Are you a fan of This Life and 19-2? Thoughts or comments? Sound off below!

The fourth and final season of 19-2 returns to Bravo in 2017. Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.

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